Birds Beasts & Relatives (1969)

By Gerald Durrell

The second book in the Corfu trilogy starting with "My Family and Other Animals"

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Cover picture © Collins 1969

Gerald Durrell with Lampadusa

Olive oil, Popcorn and a Fishy story

"I had been down in the olive groves helping the peasants and I started to feel hungry. I knew that Papa Demetrios always kept a good supply of food at the olive press, so I went down to visit him. It was a sparkling day with a rumbustious, laughing wind that thrummed through the olive grove like a harp. There was a nip in the air and so I ran all the way with the dogs leaping and barking about me, and arrived flushed and panting to find Papa Demetrios crouched over a fire that he had constructed out of slabs of olive 'cake'.

'Ah!' he said glaring at me fiercely. 'So you've come, have you. Where have you been? I haven't seen you for two days. I suppose now spring is here you've got no time for an old man like me.' I explained that I had been busy with a variety of things such as making a new cage for my magpies since they had just raided Larry's room and stood in peril of their lives if they were not incarcerated.

'Hum,' said Papa Demetrios. 'Ah, well. Do you want some corn?' I said, as nonchalantly as I could, that there was nothing T would like better than corn.

He got up, strutted bow-legged to the olive press and reappeared carrying a large frying-pan, a sheet of tin, a bottle of oil and five golden-brown cobs of dried maize, like bars of bullion. He put the frying pan on the fire and scattered a small quantity of oil into it, then waited until the heat of the fire made the oil purr and twinkle and smoke gently in the bottom of the pan. Then he seized a cob of maize and twisted it rapidly between his arthritic hands so that the golden beads of corn pattered into the pan with a sound of rain on a roof. He put the flat sheet of tin over the top, gave a little grunt and sat back, lighting a cigarette.

'Have you heard about Andreas Papoyakis?' he asked, running his fingers through his luxurious moustache.

No, I said, I had not heard.

'Ah,' he said with relish. 'He's in hospital, that foolish one.'

I said I was sorry to hear it, because I liked Andreas. He was a gay, kind hearted, exuberant boy who inevitably managed to do the wrong things. They said of him in the village that he would ride a donkey backwards if he could. What, I enquired, was his affliction?

'Dynamite,' said Papa Demetrios, waiting to see my reaction.

I gave a slow whistle of horror and nodded my head slowly.

Papa Demetrios, now assured of my undivided attention, settled himself more comfortably. 'This was how it happened,' he said. 'He's a foolish boy, Andreas is, you know. His head is as empty as a winter swallow's nest. But he's a good boy though. He's never done anybody any harm. Well, he went dynamite fishing. You know that little bay down near Benitses? Ah well, he took his boat there because he had been told that the country policeman had gone farther down the coast for the day. Of course, foolish boy, he never thought to check and make sure that the policeman was farther down the coast.'

I clicked my tongue sorrowfully. The penalty for dynamite fishing was five years in prison and a heavy fine.

'Now,' said Papa Demetrios, 'he got into his boat and was rowing slowly along when he saw ahead of him, in the shallow water, a big shoal of barbouni. He stopped rowing and lit the fuse on his stick of dynamite.' Papa Demetrios paused dramatically, peered at the corn to see how it was doing and lit another cigarette. 'That would have been all right,' he went on, 'but, just as he was about to throw the dynamite, the fish swam away and what do you think that idiot of a boy did? Still holding the dynamite he rowed after them. Bang!'

I said I thought that there could not be very much left of Andreas.

'Oh yes,' said Papa Demetrios scornfully. 'He can't even dynamite properly. It was such a tiny stick all it did was blow off his right hand. But even so, he owes his life to the policeman, who hadn't gone farther down the coast. Andreas managed to row to the shore and there he fainted from loss of blood and he would undoubtedly have died if the policeman, having heard the bang, had not come down to the shore to see who was dynamiting. Luckily the bus was just passing and the policeman stopped it and they got Andreas into it and into the hospital.'

I said I thought it was a great pity that it should happen to anybody as nice as Andreas, but he was lucky to be alive. I presumed that when he was better he would be arrested and sent to Vido for five years.

'No, no,' said Papa Demetrios. 'The policeman said he thought Andreas had been punished quite enough, so he told the hospital that Andreas had caught his hand in some machinery.

The corn had now started to explode, banging on to the top of the tin like the explosions of miniature cannons. Papa Demetrios lifted the pan off the fire and took the lid off. There was each grain of corn exploded into a little yellow and white cumulus cloud, scrunchy and delicious. Papa Demetrios took a twist of paper from his pocket and unwrapped it. It was full of coarse grains of grey sea salt, and into this we dipped the little clouds of corn and scrunched them up with relish."

BIRDS BEASTS & RELATIVES © Gerald Durrell 1969

Cover picture © House of Stratus 2003

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